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Japan's leader urges strong alliance in visit to White House

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is visiting the White House for Joe Biden’s first face-to-face talks with a foreign leader as president.

WASHINGTON — Calling democracy the foundation for global prosperity, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga met with President Joe Biden at the White House on Friday in a bid to underscore the two countries' alliance as a counter to an autocratic and increasingly assertive China.

The visit was Biden's first face-to-face talks with a foreign leader as president.

Suga and Biden, who wore masks for their meeting in the state dining room in a visit modified by White House precautions against the coronavirus, are seeking to challenge messaging from Chinese President Xi Jinping that America and democracies in general are on the decline, after the political turmoil and international withdrawal that marked Donald Trump’s presidency.

Suga said democracy, human rights and other shared values were “the very foundation of prosperity of the region and the globe." It was one of many comments seen as a reference to China, which is increasingly flexing its economic and military strength internationally. Suga, who is seeking to showcase Japan's security commitments with the United States, Japan's only treaty ally, told reporters before his talks with Biden that the trip was meant to "reaffirm the new and tight bond between us” as the U.S. and Japan deal with challenges in the region.

The Biden administration calls managing U.S. policies toward China and the Indo-Pacific the primary challenge for the United States. That helped guide Biden's decision, announced this week, to pull U.S. troops out of Afghanistan and free the administration to focus more on East Asia.

For Biden and Suga, “our approach to China and our shared coordination and cooperation on that front will be part of the discussion,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Thursday. The two will discuss other regional security issues, including North Korea's nuclear program.

Suga, a farmer’s son who rose to Japan’s highest political office after an early stint as a worker in a cardboard factory, succeeded boss Shinzo Abe last September, after long serving as his chief Cabinet secretary.

Suga expressed eagerness to meet with Biden early on despite global COVID-19 lockdowns. The pandemic is changing the normal routine for a visit by a foreign leader, so Biden won't be hosting Suga for a meal, Psaki said. Earlier Friday, Suga placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery and visited with Vice President Kamala Harris. An honor guard greeted his arrival at the White House.

Suga began brief remarks to reporters before his session with Biden by expressing sympathy for the victims and families of the mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis. “Innocent citizens must not be exposed to any such violence,” he said.

The months-old Biden administration looks to Suga to keep going on alliance-strengthening moves by both countries.

Credit: AP
This combination photo, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga speaking in Tokyo on Dec. 4, 2020 and U.S. President Joe Biden speaking at the White House in Washington on March 11, 2021. (AP Photo, File)

The two governments have been working to strengthen technology supply chains independent of China during a shortage of semiconductors that's worrying businesses around the world. Japan is expected to announce an investment in 5G cellular networks, boosting alternatives to China's network, as part of that supply chain cooperation.

Both countries are expected in coming days to make deeper commitments to cutting climate-wrecking fossil fuel emissions, in line with Biden’s climate summit with 40 world leaders next week.

The Biden administration may also have tougher requests of Japan, including pressing Suga for a rare public statement of support from a Japanese leader for Taiwan. China, which claims the self-governed island of Taiwan as its territory, tested U.S. and Taiwanese resolve weeks into the Biden administration by sending fighter jets and bombers near Taiwan.

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Japan long has moved cautiously on steps that might worsen relations with China, though Suga has been more outspoken. His administration pushed its comfort zone in a statement stressing “peace and stability” on the Taiwan Strait. That came during a visit last month by Secretary of State Tony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, which was the Biden administration's highest-level face-to-face meeting at the time.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned his Japanese counterpart in a call ahead of Suga's visit to see to it that China-Japan relations “do not get involved in the so-called confrontation between major countries,” according to a Chinese government readout.

Japan's economy is intertwined with China's. That means even “with security concerns on the rise, Japan would have to take a two-pronged approach to balance competition and cooperation,” said Akio Takahara, a professor and China expert at the University of Tokyo.

Japan considers China’s growing military activity as well as its broad territorial claims to be a security threat. Japan is itself locked in a dispute with China over Beijing’s claim to the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu in China, in the East China Sea.

Elsewhere, Tokyo has watched with concern as China has built military installations on disputed territory it claims in the South China Sea.

U.S. ships regularly conduct so-called freedom of navigation operations, sailing into international waters that China claims as its own.

President Barack Obama was seen as cajoling China, in hopes of encouraging reforms. After initially praising Xi, Trump later took on China head-on and solo, with tariffs and insults, while building a golf-buddy relationship with Suga’s predecessor, Abe.

Biden has taken a different approach, reaching out to allies to try to form united fronts.

China also has taken note of the Biden administration's support for reviving a loose four-country coalition with Japan, India and Australia, known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad. Biden and Suga on Friday are expected to announce steps through the Quad framework to help India produce COVID-19 vaccines.

Formed initially to coordinate relief efforts after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Quad had faded away for a time in part over concerns that its existence would provoke China, by suggesting the four countries were ganging up against it, noted Tanvi Madan, an expert on India and its relations in the Indo-Pacific at the Brookings Institution.

But “lately, all the things we worried about that China would do if they were provoked, they're already doing anyway,” Madan said.

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Knickmeyer reported from Oklahoma City and Yamaguchi from Tokyo. Josh Boak contributed from Washington.